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The Search for Order, 1877-1920 by Robert H. Wiebe

Several decades between the Reconstruction period and the end of World War I represent a significant time for America. It was characterized by a critical change in all aspects of the economic, political, and social life, as well as the reconsideration of the human worldview. Robert H. Wiebe’s contribution to the study of the issues of this period, presented in his book The Search for Order, is difficult to overestimate. Focusing on the different aspects of the social processes, he ultimately considers civilization in general as the subject of his research, which makes his study exceptionally broad in its scope.

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In contrast to many scholars who observe diverse reasons for the social disorder and instability in American society during this time, Wiebe finds the central point of all transformational processes, a single core of it, rather than multiple ones. His central thesis, therefore, states that the heart of progressivism of this era was “the ambition of the new middle class to fulfill its destiny through bureaucratic means” (Wiebe 166). It caused, he argues, not only economic and political change but also the establishment of the philosophy of Americal civilization. Wiebe examines different aspects of social processes, showing how his idea is manifested in various fields.

The author stands on the position of the modernization theory, which is, though not explicitly argued, provides the methodological background of his research. This theory implies the view of the positive transformation towards the highest welfare, as the community passes several stages of the development, from the decentralized agrarian community into “nationalized, industrial capitalist, urban, bureaucratic society” (Molho and Wood 93). Therefore, describing the change which American society has undergone during this period, Wiebe implicitly considers it positive.

The first point, which is examined in the book, demonstrates the initial situation of the American state, the starting point of the transformation. Wiebe defines America as the “society of island communities,” consisting of small self-contained towns and neighborhoods, disconnected in terms of economic, political, and cultural relations. Americans, he pointed out, could not even imagine an emergence of a managerial government, and almost all affairs were solved informally (Wiebe). However, in the late nineteenth century, the course was taken for nationalization, mechanization, industrialization, and urbanization. This change, coming to the central idea of the book, was driven by the new-emerged middle class, who formulated an “organizational synthesis” of the new history by establishing the “large-scale bureaucratic organizations” (Molho and Wood 94). Therefore, the political and economic interests of the middle class were the factors that drove the modernization.

The second important issue of the book is the examination of the revolution in values during the transformational period. It leads as well to the central idea, describing the prevailing philosophy with the typical worldview of the middle class. Wiebe discusses the emerged pragmatic, rational attitude towards social problems, which accompany the establishment of the bureaucracies and essential for the modernization. He also notices the “nostalgia” of the individuals and social groups that cannot adjust to the newly emerged worldview of the highly practically oriented “ambitious middle class.” A lifestyle and the principles of the action of such emerged clans as Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts, with their quantitative rather than qualitative values, could not be accepted by all members of the society.

The third issue of the book, proving the presence of the central core of the social processes during the transformation, is an idea of the absence of a serious disorder within the society. Wiebe does not deny the existence of the conflict, but this conflict does not lead, in his view, to the fundamental discord. “The Search” means instability rather than chaos; he protects the position of implicit single-orientedness of the ongoing changes.

Besides this, Wiebe expresses his thoughts about the general reasons and mechanisms for the social processes. The title “The Fate of the Nation” may illustrate his view about the inevitability of the future changes beyond human expectations. His theory “never reconciled human control with predetermined progress” (Wiebe 144), and this characteristic probably, corresponds to the higher, philosophical level, with his thesis about the fatality of the social processes. Though not explicitly, Wiebe nevertheless often refers to an autonomous and inevitable flow to the historical process. “The Order” in this context becomes an allusion to the search of the philosophers of the nineteenth century, such as Hegel, who tried to define the ultimate reason for all the transformations in human history.

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To conclude, I must say that, after all, the book has the ending open for different views and conclusions. The author argues that, despite the search, it cannot be stated that the order was set even at the end of the considered period. Furthermore, despite his idea about single-orientedness of the direction of the change, he states that not all the society was influenced by the mainstream political, economic, and ideological innovations. It seems that this is the characteristic which makes this book more influential, one of the classical studies in its field.

Works Cited

Molho, Anthony, and Gordon S. Wood. Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the Past. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Wiebe, Robert H. The Search for Order, 1877-1920. Hill and Wang, 1967.

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